Tuesday, November 22, 2011

First Days in Melbourne, Australia


The Australian chapter has begun. While nothing is significantly different than I expected, there are a multitude of small things that have surprised me. First of all, the plane was staffed with Thai stewardesses and I was sitting next to an overweight-Thai girl. Now, if you’re reading this from America, that may not seem too odd to you. However, if you’ve spent some time in Thailand you know that “overweight Thai girl” is almost an oxymoron.  I didn’t really think too much of it; I figured we were on a flight from Thailand to Australia. I thought that she was most likely an Australian of Thai decent, and, after hearing her accent, my suspicions were confirmed.

One thing that really surprised me was just how expensive it is in the city of Melbourne. First of all, the currency exchange rate is ridiculous. There was the equivalent of a 20-cent spread between buying and selling Baht in exchange for Australian dollars- meaning that I lost money within moments of getting through immigration. Shortly thereafter, I bought myself a bottle of water to quench my thirst. It cost my $3.50! For those of you thinking that it can’t be that bad, that given exchange rates it might work out to be something reasonable, but NO! Given the exchange rate, it works out to $3.68 US dollars for a small bottle of water. Unbelievable. The shuttle bus into the city cost me $16, and one bed in a dorm of ten cost me $28 dollars a night.

I had looked at a few hostels online, and I wasn’t too shocked by the prices. I figured $28 for a bed, Internet, and breakfast doesn’t sound too bad.  Little did I know that Internet was $4 and hour, and that the breakfast consisted of uncooked rice and access to their kitchen.  I bought myself a cup of noodles at the grocery store, prudently thinking that, given the outrageous cost of living, I would get the cheapest foodstuff that I know. Even these were relatively expensive! I would have spent about 25 cents in the States for one pack, but here it cost me over a dollar! At the moment I write this, I’m in Starbucks, partially because I wanted a coffee and partially because I figured I’d cheat the system and sit there for over an hour, effectively getting internet for cheaper than the going rate and getting a free coffee while I’m at it.  There is not even free WiFi at Starbucks! However, that is lucky for you, reader, because now I’m sitting here writing all this down instead of using the web to search for a job.

My final vent has to do with my cell phone. One of my top priorities upon arriving in the land down under was getting an Australian phone number, subsequently adding that number to my resume, and printing off ‘heaps’ of them in preparation for my job search.  The first guy I talked to said that I needed an Australian made phone to have an Australian number, which I was 90% sure was pure bullshit.  So, I went to an Indian run convenience store a few meters down the road and the attendant there let me use her simcard to test it in my phone. It worked well enough, so I bought a prepaid simcard from her and was off with my new number. I activated it and called an Australian mate of mine that I had met in Thailand. I was on my way, or so I thought. I discovered the problem during the final step of signing up for this job finding website. It requires that you input your Australian number so that they can send you a confirmation pin number. I think, “No problem, I’ve got my phone right here.” I wait and I wait, but nothing happens. Eventually I go to the payphone down the street and call my number, and I get a message telling me that there is incoming call restrictions on this number. So, now I can’t sign up for this website and I can’t be contacted by prospective employers. Great.  I called customer service and they said that they would report the problem and that I was to call back tomorrow. Even if this isn’t cleared up tomorrow, I’m going to have to hit the streets looking for a job regardless.

All my troubles aside, I’ll finally get to something interesting: my impression of the city of Melbourne, pronounced something like ‘Melbun’ by the locals.  First of all, while the majority of people are white, it is definitely a slim majority. There are plenty of Asians and Indians around, and even a few black folks, albeit not many. I thought I would be hearing English on the streets, but I have heard a variety of languages. The most interesting was hearing two Chinese-looking Asian girls speaking some unintelligible language, interspersed with Australian accented English. It was like the “Spanglish” I’m used to hearing at home, but sounded much different with an Asian language. Speaking of Spanish speakers, my first impression here is that the immigrant working class is Asian and Indian, which is not surprising. I figure that in the US the closest developing countries are all Spanish-speaking countries. Here, India and Asia are just a short plane ride away, and it makes sense that they would come here to fill the gaps in the unskilled labor market. That is not to say I haven’t seen any affluent, well-dressed Asians too!

Aside from the ethnic makeup of the population and comments on the socio-economic structure of this part of the world, there are definitely a variety of types of people. Not races, mind you, but types of people. For example, I’ve seen businessmen, punks, gothic people, overly tattooed and pierced people, moderately tattooed and pierced people, ‘normal’ looking people, grunge people, etc. It’s most definitely a diverse city, and I’m looking forward to getting to know it a bit better.

The city itself is beautiful. There is a lot of off-the-wall, modern architecture. Everything seems new and clean, even the graffiti seems to be in organized places and should probably be referred to as ‘street art.’ There is a nice walkway by that runs all along the river, and I sat and watched a few people row on by in a boat. It reminded me of my brother and when he used to row for his university’s team.  Being thwarted in my job search plans, I spent most of my first day just walking around and absorbing the city. I’m not sure whether I’m happy or sad to be back in a Western city. For better or for worse, I’m here, and I’ll be damned if I don’t make the most of it. 

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